Almost exactly six months ago, the New York Times was taken in by a well-orchestrated media event by NC Warn, an antinuclear activist group, when its editors chose to publish an Energy and Environment Special Report titled Nuclear Energy Loses Cost Advantage. On January 28, 2010, the UPI published a story in their Science News section titled Cheap solar energy set to displace n-power that was based on exactly the same source of misinformation.
Apparently, the UPI did not get the memo from the NY Times editors who reluctantly issued an “Editor’s Note” to correct the story they had gullibly published. The UPI is also considered to be a credible news source; it is disappointing to see that 104-year-old stalwart of the media establishment publish such a biased and incorrect story.
Like the Times piece, the UPI story was poorly researched. It includes several marketing quotes from a solar systems salesman. Here is the lede of the UPI’s “science news” story:
New research has established that sophisticated new solar energy production methods make it far and away the cheapest and least hazardous energy source, certainly cheaper and safer than nuclear power.
The latest findings come through research by a British market leader in renewable energy production following on from studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
(Emphasis added. Even the biased sources used only claim cost parity, not superiority.)
That “market leader in renewable energy” is identified as Ken Moss, chief executive officer at U.K. solar power developer and producer mO3. mO3 is a company whose survival depends on convincing government decision makers to mandate an income stream from electricity customers. Under existing rules, those customers are forced to pay exorbitant feed-in-tariffs to support his company’s expensive, unreliable, weather-dependent solar parks. A number of government leaders want to reduce those subsidy payments as part of an important effort to reduce deficit spending.
In addition to basing a science news story on marketing claims from someone with a direct financial interest in obscuring the truth, the UPI did not provide accurate information its other source. The primary source for the UPI story was NOT part of a series of “studies” produced by the institution called Duke University as the above quote implies. Instead, the source was a single paper commissioned by NC Warn, a group that publicly advertises that fighting nuclear energy is one of its primary focus areas.
That group paid a retired economics professor who had been employed by Duke and a Masters of Environmental Management candidate studying at Duke to write a paper seductively titled Solar and Nuclear Costs — The Historic Crossover.
Aside: I suppose it is not a lie to say that the paper was written at a place called Duke University. The professor and the grad student might actually have used the Duke University library and maybe even a computer and printer owned by the university. End Aside.
The paper was made public with a mass press release; it was not published in any peer reviewed journal. Soon after the paper’s availability was announced, a freelance reporter named Diana S. Powers wrote a special report for the New York Times titled Nuclear Energy Loses Cost Advantage.
As far as I could tell from that report, Ms. Powers did not even read the full paper to understand the basis for the claim. She certainly did not consult any other sources that might help her understand the truth. Instead, she simply did exactly what an antinuclear activist group wanted her and other journalists to do; she published a biased claim painting a rosy picture of solar energy accompanied by additional incorrect information about nuclear energy.
The poorly sourced article generated some buzz within the pronuclear blogging community (see Is Solar Really Cheaper than Nuclear and Solar Study Under a Cloud) and a few letters to the editor. The NY Times published the following Editor’s Note to clarify Ms. Powers’s work.
Editors’ Note: August 3, 2010
An article published July 27 in an Energy Special Report analyzed the costs of nuclear energy production. It quoted a study that found that electricity from solar photovoltaic systems could now be produced less expensively than electricity from new nuclear power plants.
In raising several questions about this issue and the economics of nuclear power, the article failed to point out, as it should have, that the study was prepared for an environmental advocacy group, which, according to its Web site, is committed to ‘‘tackling the accelerating crisis posed by climate change — along with the various risks of nuclear power.’’ The article also failed to take account of other studies that have come to contrasting conclusions, or to include in the mix of authorities quoted any who elaborated on differing analyses of the economics of energy production.
Although the article did quote extensively from the Web site of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, representatives of the institute were not given an opportunity to respond to the claims of the study. This further contributed to an imbalance in the presentation of this issue.
After having an Atomic Insights reader point to the existence of the UPI story, I visited that article and attempted to add a clarifying comment to warn UPI readers that the story was a poorly researched lie. The Atomic Insights reader had informed me that his correcting comment had been screened off by the moderator, so I tried to be careful in my wording. However, since I am not sure if my comment will get published by the UPI, I figured I would share it with you here.
Some myths will never die, especially when they are tales that serve the economic interests of the people who repeat them. The story above quotes Ken Moss, a solar system salesman.
The truth is that solar PV electricity is frightfully costly – the only reason that it even exists in the market is that taxpayers often supply as much as 65% of the cost of the system installation. In addition, electricity customers called “ratepayers” are often forced to pay solar electricity suppliers a price that is often two to five times the market price for electricity.
(By the way, do you know any tax payers who are not also rate payers? We all end up paying twice to help the often wealthy people who decorate their homes or businesses with “feel good
” solar panels.)
The “study” was done in North Carolina by a retired professor from Duke and a first year graduate student. It was NOT done by Duke University. It was sponsored by an antinuclear activist organization called NC Warn that calls itself an environmental group. The study was boldly titled “Solar and Nuclear Costs — The Historic Crossover: Solar Energy is Now the Better Buy”, but if you actually read the study you will find that the Appendix computed a solar PV COST of 35 cents per kilowatt hour. That compares very unfavorably with the average cost of electricity from our installed fleet of 104 nuclear power plants of just 2.03 cents per kilowatt hour.
The NC Warn sponsored study claimed that the cost for the customer for solar electricity, with the system financed at a low rate of 6% over 20 years, was 15.9 cents because US federal taxpayers paid 30% of the cost of the panel and installation and the taxpayers in the state of North Carolina paid 35% of the cost. Those generous gifts seemed like such a great deal that the money ran out long before all interested people were able to buy their roof decorations.
This was a reverse Robin Hood kind of arrangement where even people who live in apartments and could not afford their own suburban roofs provided forced contributions to the often prosperous people who thought that the panels would make them look “green” in the eyes of their neighbors. It is nice, I guess, to be on the good side of the Sheriff of Nottingham.
I wrote about this “study” last summer when the story first appeared in the New York Times. My analysis appeared in an Atomic Insights post titled “Gullible Reporting by the New York Times on the Cost of Solar Electricity Versus Nuclear Electricity.” After a little storm arose in the nuclear blogging world, the NY Times editors took the rare step of issuing an “Editor’s Note” essentially apologizing for the inaccuracy of the report. That apology is still appended to the Times article about the antinuclear activist sponsored study.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
There is additional evidence that the anonymous author of the UPI article had an antinuclear motive for writing his brief piece. Here is what he wrote after the lede:
The nuclear power generation industry and its various lobbies have successfully campaigned for the nuclear option as the most economical for consumers planning for large increases in demand for electricity.
Outside the United States, too, nuclear power generation has won new friends in recent years despite controversies over nuclear energy’s dual use — the other as a weapon of mass destruction.
Words like that should never be used in a piece filed in the Science section; those words belong on the opinion page, especially when published by a 104 year old media organization that claims to have “a passion to preserve the best of journalistic practices”.
PS Dr. Blackburn, the author of the antinuclear, prosolar paper commissioned by NC Warn, has been fighting nuclear energy since the 1970s. He testified against CP&L’s Shearon Harris plant in 1976. His opposition assisted in producing a situation in which only one unit was completed on a site with capacity for four units. In 1987, he published a book titled The Renewable Energy Alternative: How the United States and the World Can Prosper Without Nuclear Energy or Coal.
In 2010, the 900 MWe Shearon Harris Unit 1 produced 7.08 Billion kilowatt-hours of electricity with a capacity factor of slightly less than 90%. Assuming it is an average performer, the cost per kilowatt hour was about 2.03 cents, about 1/18th of the cost of electricity from a solar photovoltaic power system.
Update: (Posted February 2, 2010 at 8:18 pm.) I just visited the original article that inspired this post. As noted by a commenter here, a few of the comments that were once posted have mysteriously disappeared. The missing comments share something in common – in calm, factual language they each pointed out that the source material for the article was not a peer reviewed paper, but a commissioned paper by an advocacy group. Here is a PDF of the page captured on January 28. Compare it to the comments that are currently posted on the article.